The New York Times made waves over the weekend with an editorial calling for the prosecution of those associated with the “enhanced interrogation” (i.e., torture) program implemented by the Bush administration after the September 11 attacks. In the editorial, the board writes that “any credible investigation should include former Vice President Dick Cheney; Mr. Cheney’s chief of staff, David Addington; the former C.I.A. director George Tenet; and John Yoo and Jay Bybee, the Office of Legal Counsel lawyers who drafted what became known as the torture memos.”
Curiously, the Times omits President Bush from its list.
As nice as it’d be to think there aren’t two different thresholds for criminality — one for the rich and powerful, and one for everyone else — there is simply no way Dick Cheney will be prosecuted by the United States government. This is especially true under President Obama, who has repeatedly said he has absolutely no interest seeing justice is done. Despite admitting, “We tortured some folks,” Obama already explained before taking office that he has “a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards” when it comes to torture.
Imagine you are walking down the street and alongside you pulls a van from which three men emerge. They throw you into the van and whisk you away to what is basically a dungeon. You are held there for months and are periodically tortured. Water is poured over your mouth and nose. Occasionally you’re made to hang from the ceiling by your wrists. Sometimes, you are locked in a coffin-sized box, unable to move for hours at a time. A couple of times, a tube is shoved up your anus in what is basically a sexual assault. You don’t know if you’ll ever see your family again, which has no idea where you are or if you’re even alive.
One day, you somehow manage to escape. Immediately, you head to the nearest police station where you tell your harrowing tale to a detective in the hopes that police will track down these sadists and arrest them so they can be prosecuted. After you’ve finished speaking, the detective calmly takes a sip of his coffee and says he won’t investigate because, he says, “We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”
Needless to say, you’d be beside yourself with incredulity. The function of law enforcement is to maintain order in large part by investigating criminal activity and punishing those who have engaged in it. This also sends a message that perpetrators of such crimes are and will in fact be punished, and so the purpose of prosecutions isn’t just for the sake of retribution, but deterrence. When Obama says he won’t investigate the Bush torture program and won’t bring criminal charges against those responsible for it, he is simply reiterating the long-standing orthodoxy the laws do not apply to the rich and powerful.
This is exactly why Dick Cheney has no qualms about going on television and essentially admitting that his administration tortured people: he rightly fears no reprisal at all. For Cheney, though, it’s not just self-interest that shapes his views. Rather, he truly believes powerful people such as himself are above the law. Witness his hearty of approval of President Ford’s decision to pardon Richard Nixon, and his bizarre claim that this “restored the faith and confidence of the American people,” as if dramatically confirming Americans’ suspicion that the laws don’t apply to the powerful is conducive to restoring confidence.
The New York Times’ editorial is bold, perhaps even unprecedented in its call for prosecuting a former vice president, but it will never become a reality.
President Obama will see to that.